A limited partnership of politicians, developers, agribusiness corporations and the University of California, Merced, appear to have established a unified board of directors composed of three divisions: founding members of the UC Merced Foundation board of trustees, the Great Valley Center board of directors and staff, and the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, recently appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In mid-November, UC Merced and the Great Valley Center announced they had merged and that UC Merced Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey would become the chairman of a downsized GVC board of directors. (1)
Viewed from the perspective of the on-going ecological crisis in the Valley, this group would appear to have been assembled around common interests: the defeat of environmental laws, regulations and local, state and federal agencies mandated to enforce them, dismantling the Valley’s agricultural economy except for its largest agribusiness corporations, and promoting the expansion of UC Merced. This interlocking board of directors is a formidable array of political influence, money and propaganda capacity. Powerful synergies of propaganda, lobbying and funds probably will develop to mold Valley public opinion to accept the worst air pollution in the nation, diminished water supply and quality, the loss of prime farmland, open space and wildlife habitat, the linking of one continual slurb from Stockton to Bakersfield, and UC Merced research guided by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in directions both ethically and ecologically offensive.
Some of the problems The Board faces immediately:
Although UC has built the first phase of its Merced campus, federal environmental regulations forced it off the originally donated land of the Virginia Smith Trust onto the former site of a municipal golf course. UC Merced has yet to get federal approval for its plans under the Clean Water Act, regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The regional water quality board rejected Hilmar Cheese’ proposed solution to on-going violations of water quality standards, provoking the ‘world’s largest cheesemaker’ to announce plans to build an even larger plant in Texas. (2)
The San Joaquin Valley is growing almost as fast as Mexico, considerably faster than either California or the US. (3) The worst air-polluted parts of the Valley, mainly around Fresno, now experience endemic child asthma, the highest rates in the state. (4) Sixty percent of the problem is from mobile emissions, the rest from stationary sources. Lately, it has been admitted that dairies are the leading stationary source of air pollution. The growth of the Valley dairy industry is second only to the growth of suburbanization (building sprawling, low-density residential areas also known as slurbs). What is routinely denied about dairy pollution is the contribution of daily, diesel-fueled milk truck traffic. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District also has been looking at charging an air-pollution fee on new construction. And the state Water Reclamation Board recently started to question development on flood plains near Delta levees.
The Valley Board is disturbed by this “unbalanced” regulation.
Then, there is the national political embarrassment of the north Valley congressional delegation, known by local farmers as “O Pomboza," formerly representatives RichPAC Pombo, Buffalo Slayer-Tracy, and Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced.
A forthright approach to environmental problems was pioneered last spring by board member Greenlaw “Fritz” Grupe, a prominent San Joaquin County developer. Grupe assembled developers at his Lodi ranch for a joint political fundraiser for O Pomboza. Not long after the fundraiser, the two congressmen jointly authored a bill to gut the Endangered Species Act, with particular attention to critical habitat designations, because their joined districts contain extensive critical habitat for 15 endangered species associated with seasonal wetlands. UC Merced is built on and wishes to expand on the densest concentration of vernal pools in the nation.
Beyond the Pomboza problem, the period of one-party Republican rule seems to be running off its tracks and corruption investigations are becoming popular again. These are stressful times for special interests because it may become unpopular as well as illegal again to actually buy a politician. Public opinion may resent, at least for awhile, the daily spectacle of the richest, most powerful interests purchasing votes from elected toadies, "cultivating leadership," and the whole seedy story of how money buys power to make more money. The fathomless propaganda resources of UC could be invaluable at such a time.
The possibilities for networking and "synergy" (this year's replacement for the old standby -- "win-win, public/private partnerships) on The Board are beyond imagination, however its Executive Committee, composed of those who sit on more than one of its divisions, is small.
Tony Coelho, the former Democratic congressman from Merced, is a member of the founding board of trustees of UC Merced and of the board of Great Valley Center. In his position as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Coelho was so spectacularly corrupt that an ethics committee when his own party controlled the House, investigated personal loans he received from Michael Milken. Wall Street Journal reporter Brooks Jackson wrote a book about Coelho, called Honest Graft. (5) It’s not well read in the Valley, but The Board knows the story well because prominent members were involved. Coelho, like Tom DeLay and other House members currently under investigation, was a political entrepreneur. He may have thought of himself as a pioneer in the theory that politics was just another business, but Jackson reminded us that in fact, Coelho and the Republican campaign funders against whom he competed were just reproducing the political conditions of the McKinley Era, so highly prized by Karl Rove 20 years after Coelho left. Jackson said of Coelho: “In a healthier political setting Coelho could well have become Speaker of the House, possibly a great one. He deserved a better system. So do we all.” (6)
However, his career from beginning to end was shaped by the Valley political system, in which Valley special interests contributed large amounts of money, often to coastal liberal Democratic machines, in return for promises of support on key special interest legislation and to keep liberal policies out of the Valley.
Coelho quit Congress and went to Wall Street. Ecologically, he is known for trying to get two projects into the Valley that environmentalists defeated: a United Technologies rocket factory and a super-collider. According to reliable rumor, he was frequently summoned by Valley interest groups to explain complex issues to his successor, Gary Condit, and Coelho was deeply involved, from the beginning, with siting UC Merced.
He is a brilliant, energetic politician whose ambitions drove him to rise and fall and rise again in local and national political systems none of us deserve.
Grupe was also a member of the founding board of trustees of UC Merced Foundation and last month the governor appointed him deputy chair of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley. Since 1966, one of Stockton’s two major developers, Grupe now has other credentials. He is a member of the advisory board of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley; and he was past-president and current member of the Urban Land Institute. But Grupe is on The Board because he's a charter member of the political economic system neither Coelho nor we deserved.
Carol Whiteside, founder and president of Great Valley Center, was also a founding member of the UC Merced Foundation. She served on Pete Wilson’s staff and was appointed by him assistant secretary of the state Resources Agency. As mayor of Modesto, Whiteside presided over that city’s most rapid growth period.
Rayburn Dezember, of Bakersfield, currently serves as a director of the Bakersfield Californian and Trustee of the University of California, Merced Foundation. He previously served as chairman of American National Bank from 1966 to 1990, director of Wells Fargo Bank from 1990-1999, director of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 1984 to 1989 and director of Tejon Ranch Company from 1990-2002. The governor appointed him to the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley. Plans to develop a $57-billion new city on the Tejon Ranch threaten the habitat of one of America’s most endangered species, the California Condor, along with a host of other wildlife species located on the largest piece of private property left in the state. Dezember’s local newspaper, the Californian, has long had a reputation as one of the most rightwing papers in the state.
By chance, it was avian rehabilitators from Merced who started the original Condor Project to save the giant, nearly extinct birds. To date, $35 million has been spent to rescue the condor from extinction. (7) On paper, Dezember is pro-growth, anti-air quality and environment – bad for Bakersfield, bad for the Valley, but a Republican and no doubt excellent contributor to the Hun.
Frederick Ruiz, in the words of a Hun press release, is from “Parlier, has over 40 years experience in the food processing industry. He and his father founded Ruiz Foods in 1964. He has served as a member of the University of California, Board of Regents since 2004. In addition, Ruiz is currently on the board of directors for the California Chamber of Commerce, a trustee on the University of Merced Foundation, a member of the President's Advisory Board of California State University Fresno and a member of Valley CAN ‘Clean Air Now.’ Ruiz is a Republican.”
The Hun replaced Dolores Huerta on the UC regents’ board with Ruiz. Huerta was co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. Two conjectures: although Huerta looks like a union socialist and Ruiz like an entrepreneurial capitalist, Ruiz Foods received more federal and state grant and loan funding than the UFW ever did; Huerta’s brilliant, committed and sustained community organizing, mainly on behalf of Latino communities in the Valley, did more good for Ruiz Foods than Ruiz Foods ever did for working people who want unions.
Daniel Whitehurst, president, Farewell, Inc. Fresno, was on the founding board of trustees of the UC Merced Foundation and is a member of the GVC board. Whitehurst is a member of a Fresno-based family of extremely political morticians, people of influence since at least the time of late state Sen. Hugh Burns, with old connections to the west side of the Valley.
The Garamendi family presents nearly a two-fer because John Sr., the state Insurance Commissioner now running for state Lt. Governor, is a member of the founding board of the UC Merced Foundation and John, Jr. was appointed vice chancellor for University Relations at UC Merced in June. Family values are important in the Valley.
Agribusiness holds only single memberships, mainly on the UC Merced Foundation board. (8)
Chuck Ahlem, Partner, Hilmar Cheese Company, Hilmar
H.A. "Gus" Collin, Chairman, Sunsweet Growers, Inc., Yuba City
Robert Gallo, President, E&J Gallo Winery, Modesto
John Harris, President, Harris Farms and Harris Inns, Coalinga
William Lyons, Sr., President, Lyons Investments and Mapes Ranch, Modesto
Thomas Smith, President, CALCOT, Bakersfield
Ann Veneman, Attorney at Law, Sacramento (former Secretary of the USDA)
Roger Wood, Vice President, J.R. Wood, Inc., Atwater;
Stewart Woolf, President, Los Gatos Tomato, Inc., Huron
There is a scattering of agricultural producers on the UC Merced Foundation board, along with local businessmen and large landowners:
Carl Cavaiani, President, Santa Fe Nut Company, Ballico
Bert Crane Sr., President, Bert Crane Ranches, Merced;
Jim Cunningham, owner, Cunningham Ranch, LeGrand
James Duarte, President, Duarte Nursery, Inc., Hughson
Price Giffen, President, Giffen Company, Fresno
Art Kamangar, Kamangar Ranches, Merced
Other members include retired UC officials, Silicon Valley executives, lawyers, developers, other educators, investors, public officials and local business people. The Board includes no one from any local, state or national environmental organization. In fact, The Board looks like a special interest reaction against environmental, public health, economic and agricultural concerns to protect its rapid growth strategies. It also looks like a non-elected government.
(3) Dr. Michael Teitz, presentation at Merced City Council Chambers, Dec. 1, 2005
(5) Jackson, Brooks, Honest Graft, Knopf, 1988.
(6) Jackson, p. 6